If you were able to attend the premiere of Boy Erased at the Toronto International Film Festival this year you likely witnessed a true star being born.
Martha Conley is the mother of Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased, a memoir about his experiences in a gay conversion therapy camp that is now a major motion picture from Focus Features starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe out this week. After the film, in usual fashion, the talent came on stage for a Q&A: writer/director Joel Edgerton, Kidman, Troye Sivan, Garrard and Martha.
In their introductions from TIFF Director of Programming Carrie Craddock it wasn’t Troye Sivan who garnered the biggest response. It wasn’t Oscar winner Nicole Kidman either. It was Martha. It was a thunderous, sustained flood of applause and a standing ovation for a woman who went through tremendous personal growth to find herself in the spotlight of a story that she knows might have people seeing her as both the villain and the hero. It was Martha’s first time seeing the film and she found herself overwhelmed; by the response and by the film itself. So much so that she pretty much took over the Q&A detailing her emotional journey getting to this place, to the delight of the crowd.
In her first official interview, an AwardsWatch exclusive, I talked with Martha at length about her own life growing up, how she has found the place where her faith and beliefs co-exist, reconciling her own personal demons and what her ultimate message is about the fight against gay conversion therapy. And of course, Nicole Kidman.
AW: Martha, where did you grow up?
MC: I grew up, it was a little community called Milligan Ridge in Arkansas (which she charmingly spells out for me M-I-L-L-I-and so on). It’s the flatlands, we owned a cotton gin and soybean elevator. My dad was a farmer and worked in the gin and then Hershel and I bought my uncle’s half of the gin after we were married and then we started working there. Then we ended up buying my dad’s part before he passed away. So we were there for like 30 years.
Is it a small town?
Oh my goodness. It’s like a community, you know, like a hundred people if you got them all together at church. Yes, it’s very small. I rode the bus and so did Garrard. We rode the bus 13 miles to our school in Manila.
Was religion always an important part of your upbringing and your family?
It really was for me because we did live out in the country, you know, I doubt you can really understand this if you didn’t grow up out in the country; kids just played outside all day and walked up and down the roads and rode bicycles and stuff all the time. And you know, by the time Garrard came along, I wouldn’t even let him drive right out of our driveway. Things changed so much, you know, because the world changed so much.
My sister is nine years older than me and she’s the one that took me to church. My parents didn’t go to church until they were, gosh, a lot older. So I mean, even mom and daddy would drop me off at church after my sister went away to college. So I went to church and I was always religious. Well, you know, as I say all the time I really think that as far as denominations go, I think you kind of go where you live, you know, like even if you live in a city, you go to like maybe one that’s on the corner to start out. Yeah. I’m not sure that people even really know…they should study the religion that they’re in, you know, before they join. But I don’t think they always do because you know, you just tend to go in your neighborhood or where you grew up.
What was Garrard like as a kid?
Well, I used to think he was shy, but as he got older I realized, you know, after I found out that he was gay, I realized that he really wasn’t shy. He just had a secret, you know, but he was a funny kid. He always, since he was really small, like as small as five years old, we would say, you know, ‘Are you going to be a fireman, a doctor?’ And he would say ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ And he would take, you know, like, just notebook paper and he would, you know, he didn’t know his ABC’s and he would just scribble on everything and draw little pictures and those were his books. He would always put ‘Illustrated by Garrard Conley’ and ‘Written by Garrard Conley’ on everything. Then in the sixth grade he had an assignment where they had to write a story and I got called to the school because he well, he would read those Goosebumps books, you know, and his dad would play practical jokes on him all the time while he’d be reading those stories. Hershel would go in and put shaving cream all over his face and make it look like a monster and then sneak in and scare him to death! So Garrard wrote a story and it was very much like a Goosebumps story but the teacher was killed in the story. So I got to go to the principal’s office, you know, because they were concerned. And really if you knew Garrard, you know, he probably didn’t like her so he killed her off in the story. So he was a character.
Not many people know this about him but by the time he was 13 he was a black belt in karate and he was going for his second black belt. But we ended up moving at that time and it was two and a half hour drive to get him back to the classes each week. But he didn’t like sports that he couldn’t win; that’s still Garrard. When we put him in tee ball and baseball and stuff, you know, he played, but you could tell he wasn’t in it. We have this picture of him sitting in the dirt in tee ball and he’s drawing in the dirt, but while he draws, he has the glove over his face so he won’t get hit. That was how much he was into it. But then the minute he got into karate, or it was taekwondo, he loved it because he was at his own speed and he liked was constantly skipping a belt because he would practice so much. He would take his test, the instructor would like giving the next belt, you know, he worked so hard and so he was able to just whiz through it. But that was on his own time, he was just competing against himself and that’s still kind of the way he is.
As a mother, did you know that he was gay before he told you?
Everyone asks me that and I don’t understand how I could not know, but part of it was where he grew up. His dad is actually, you know, very macho. He played football, he builds cars, you know, street rods. To this day, he still builds street rods on the side. There was nothing he couldn’t fix mechanically at the gin and when it would break down he would be the one out there fixing it at two in the morning. Garrard was a part of all that. He was never afraid of work. He would always help with that work since he a little boy. He would sweep out at the gin and he was always around people that we’re very masculine so I didn’t see it back then and you know, because I really didn’t have any gay friends that I knew of at the time. Later I would find out that they were, but they didn’t come out in high school or anything. And so I didn’t really see the signs and I think Garrard had put on a pretty good show and you know.
He always loved to go to like the dances, the junior high dances when they started. And so he would always like, meet a girl there, you know. Then when we moved to Cherokee Village where, when this was the beginning of everything, in the book he had the girlfriend, she’s Chloe in the book, I won’t say her real name, but it was the middle of the second semester of the ninth grade. Well, you know, that’s a hard, awkward age anyway. She was there for him and she’s such a sweet and fun and a very pretty girl. She went to the same church that we did and you know, we were just thrilled that he had a girlfriend. They were together all the time because it was really fun over at her house. She had a younger brother and they were always ordering pizza and watching movies. She was a year older than Garrard so she could drive and so, you know, we just really didn’t think anything about it. They were together for almost two years. When they split up I just thought it was because he was ready to go to college his senior year, he really didn’t care for his high school much and he was really ready to move on and to go to the fine arts college that he had visited several times that he was just crazy about it. I could just tell he was just almost going through the motions of that last year.
But then when prom time came, you know, of course he went to every prom and with another girl from Jonesborough and who turned out to have been a lesbian, but we didn’t know it. So, you know, they made a real good fit, but neither one told each other.
Did you have any feelings about her opinions about homosexuality before he came out?
Yes I did. I hate that I did. I don’t think there’s a day goes bad that I don’t apologize to Garrard for sending to conversion therapy. But I still feel so guilty. I know with Hershel (her husband and Garrard’s father), he doesn’t have a problem with LGBTQ people at all. He says he wishes that more would come to his church, but then he doesn’t feel that they should act upon it. That’s an awfully hard thing to ask people to do, to not love or to be loved. I prayed the wrong prayer for two years, even after I took Garrard to conversion therapy, that I had made a big mistake then and that I should have done my homework before I took him instead of coming home and reading everything I could get my hands on.
But, you know, 14 years ago there, we were on the Internet, but I was not on the Internet every day. I worked a computer at work but I really didn’t go on the Internet that much. We didn’t have smartphones where you just Google something and in two minutes you’ll know everything there is to know about it. One of the first things that I read where it was some of Matthew Vine’s work, you know, God and the Guy Christian. That helped me so much because he explained how some of the Bible verses, he wasn’t saying that they weren’t true; he was just showing another side. And that really helped me to be able to start opening up about how I failed and start having prayers where instead of just praying that God would change Garrard, I would pray that if I was wrong that God would change my heart. And that started happening pretty quickly.
What was your experience and understanding of what Love in Action (the gay conversion therapy) was?
Garrard would say everyday, ‘Well mom, what did you do while I was there?’ I didn’t really know he wasn’t supposed to be discussing anything that they discussed in conversion therapy. I said, well, I’m going to go get a tan these two weeks (of the initial therapy) so I bought a package and the first couple of days I did that. This was when we were still tanning and sunbeds and didn’t know any better. Then I went to the mall and shop and sit around and people watched and ate lunch and just kind of enjoyed being in the city.
But then after about the fourth day I could tell that I was getting very depressed. I was going straight back after I dropped him off and getting under the covers in the bed. I wouldn’t even turn on the television. I would set my alarm for like 30 minutes before I would go pick Garrard up and then I would just throw on some blush and some lipstick and comb my hair and go pick him up and act like I had been out all day when really I was crying and under the covers and just really, really going into that dark hole.
I knew it was such a fraud by the time I left and I felt so exposed and taken and in conned by the time I got Garrard out of there. I was just so enraged is the word I word use that I have just been so conned because even though we didn’t know what to do, we thought we were doing the right thing and I that’s how I made it okay to take him even though I know he did not want to go.
He told me later ‘Mom, of course I didn’t want to go but I really didn’t want to tell you and dad I didn’t want to go. And he said, ‘But I think even for myself, because I was raised the same way you and dad were that I think I had to kind of find that out on my own that I was right and that I couldn’t change.’
The doctor that you see in the movie, Cherry Jones plays her part, I just wished I had been able to have more of her in it because I basically have to give her credit for not only saving Garrard’s life and explaining to him that there was so much more out there and that he was perfectly normal, but she also really helped get me on some medication and into some therapy. She was very careful, because she loved Hershel and she was very careful not to criticize him, but she just wanted me to realize that there were two sides and it was okay for me to, you know, want to support my son.
What was your initial response to the book and to things in it that you didn’t know?
I didn’t read the book until it came out. I had of course preordered it, but I knew it wouldn’t come in until that next day so I waited till it was midnight and I went and got it on Amazon and I read it as fast as I could, really skipping through as fast as I could, just to make sure if I was ever going to be able to go out in public. I felt like, you know how they say, you feel like you’re running through the streets naked, you know? That was what I felt like, I thought, ‘Oh, everybody in the world’s going to know every secret, everything I said and how many secrets that kept from them because I don’t think I even told anybody about Garrard being gay for maybe six months. I finally told my sister because I knew she wouldn’t have a problem about it at all because she had a lot of gay friends. But as I told other family members, you know, it was horrific. And so I really kept to myself.
I went back and reread the book slowly and the odd thing was on I didn’t cry. People say, ‘well, why didn’t you cry?’ And the only thing that I’ve ever been able to come up with was living through it was the hard part. That was when I was doing all the crying. Reading about it hurt me, but it was nothing compared to living through that. I felt like by the time the book came out so many years later that I had already, you know, confronted all of those fears and gotten passed so many things that I had thought were wrong and had completely changed my mind, you know, and I thought, I was on the road to recovery so I didn’t really want to go back to those places to tell you the truth.
It sounds like you and your son have always been close.
We’ve been close since the day he was born. He was loved way before he even came, because we had wanted him so badly. When I was pregnant, there had not been a grandchild and 13 years on my side in 10 years on Hershel’s side so at the hospital there were 28 people waiting down the hall for this baby to be born.
That’s a lot of pressure!
I know, a lot of pressure! But everybody was excited. There was gonna be a new grandchild. So, we were always close.
All while Garrard was growing up, I’ve always been such a big movie person. I just grew up where I love to go to the movies and I really get into them and it’s just like the whole world goes away because I really get into them that much. And I’ve always loved the movies as much as the books. I love to read also and I love to see the differences, you know, compare them. And so Garrard just grew up sitting in my lap eating popcorn when he didn’t even know what he was watching, but he would just sit there and be so still and you know, he just would go to the movie anytime we went.
Was it surreal to have Nicole Kidman play you in a movie?
Well, it still is. I know you saw the quote where I feel like I’m letting her down if I go out without makeup or my hair done or something. And I really try to go out incognito through a drive through to pick up my medicine and in fact, you know, I have to go to anything because that’s the first thing.
Joel had said he had people in mind as he was writing it, he was filming Red Sparrow in Budapest and he was flying back and forth to meet with Garrard in Brooklyn, he had mentioned to Garrard a couple of people, but Garrard hadn’t told me at all about Nicole Kidman because he knew she was my favorite actress. And so when Joel was here, we were eating dinner at our dining room table and Joel said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve been in talks with Nicole Kidman and she said she’s really on board, but she wants to give you a call because she has some questions before she can take this part.’ I remember just sitting in shock thinking there is no way that he has my favorite actress, Nicole Kidman, is going to play me. I’m thinking he’s just teasing me, you know, because Joel is a big teaser but I realized pretty quickly that he wasn’t joking with me and I couldn’t even say anything. Then at dinner I said, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll be devastated now that you’ve told me this if she doesn’t take the part.’
And he said, ‘I wouldn’t be telling you this if I wasn’t like 99 percent sure that she is on board.’ At that time he didn’t know if Russell was, he had been in a couple of discussions with him. Then it was Russell who said, ‘Well, you know, if I wasn’t ready to do the part, I wouldn’t even be having these discussions with you.’ Joel said since he had not been in the director’s seat enough to realize that when they were talking to him, they were pretty much ready to be on board. Lucas, of course, when he was here, I knew that he had signed on and he was able to tell us that Cherry Jones had signed on because Joel actually wrote her a personal message, a personal letter that he just didn’t think there was anybody else that could be Dr. Julie but her and he would consider it such an honor if she would do this. It all happened so fast.
But as far Nicole is concerned, that was the highest honor I’ll probably ever be given in my lifetime to have Nicole Kidman play me. And you know, she’s so sincere and genuine and genuinely kind. Her love really comes out as a mother.
She became his [Lucas’s] mother and she became that warrior that fought for her child. I think that is so evident all throughout the movie. I was just so honored the way she played my part. I will never get over that. She thanked me for allowing her to play me, and she said, ‘I feel like I’m the one that was honored.’ She’s just so gracious.
I was just so honored that she would take this part because it was so important for the mother’s side to get out there because the mother was just so confused. But those motherly instincts of love, they don’t go away just because you’re…I get really get angry and upset with myself of how I handled it, but I also have had to learn to forgive myself because that was the way I was raised. In some circles I’m still very criticized for even supporting Garrard. But in my church I haven’t heard a word of criticism, either to my face or behind my back, and for that I’m so thankful.
How was Lucas as your ‘son?’
I didn’t cry when I read the book, but when Lucas was playing Garrard, I’m in the diner [during a scene cut from the film] and I just started sobbing and I think it was because Lucas is just…Lucas is amazing. I think he’s our next great actor. I really do. I mean he portrays everybody, you know? When he first met Garrard every page in his book was marked up on that book and I knew.
And I really didn’t know until after I’d been out there that this was his first film to without a parent present, you know, and I hadn’t even thought about that because we teased constantly because he would call me mommy and I would call him son. He would say, ‘Oh, Mommy’s here now!’ We just hugged and he’s so easy to talk to and he shared some things with me that he would probably share with his own mom. I just had such a good time being on the set.
What was it like finally seeing the movie?
I hadn’t read the script, but I knew that Joel was going to take it more into the area of conversion therapy. I was so thankful that he decided to do that. Not to get any of the pressure off of our family because I wanted people that are going through this to see that it’s okay to have been wrong and it’s okay for it to take time.
Everybody’s going to have a different reaction and when I was talking to Troye Sivan he said he was able to just say ‘I’m gay’ to both his parents and it was no big deal. He didn’t even know about conversion therapy and when we talked he said it was so hard to play that part. To find out that this had all taken place and that he didn’t have to go through it. He never had to have a secret like so many gay people do.
What do you hope people that read Garrard’s memoir and watch the movie take away from it the most?
We need to destroy conversion therapy and we need to get it stopped in all 50 states, not just a few and we don’t need it to just be able to hide behind any other viral, you know, like religion or for any of the psychiatrist or psychologist or therapist to be able to hide behind a veil and of saying that, that this is a religious part of it because there it, there’s not one part of this that is religious that, you know, it all needs to be stopped. It’s evil and that’s my biggest fight, that’s my goal.
77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. For more information, please visit http://stoperasing.com , and spread awareness.
Boy Erased will be released in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco from Focus Features on November 2nd and expand nationwide on November 16th.